To Open the Door or Close It: An Expert Evaluates the Explosive Issues of Immigration

UPDATED 12/06/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/06/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

Most Americans take great pride in this being a nation of immigrants. But with political refugees and illegal aliens becoming a more visible presence at a time when U.S. citizens are faced with an ever-tightening job market, immigration has become a hot political issue. This month the most sweeping revision of U.S. immigration law in 30 years is likely to come before the House of Representatives. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1982, sponsored by Wyoming's Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Kentucky's Democratic Congressman Romano Mazzoli, sailed through the Senate last August by a vote of 80-19, despite three controversial provisions: amnesty for certain illegal immigrants, civil and criminal sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegals, and a call for a fraud-resistant ID system for everybody in the work force, foreigners and natives alike. The bill drew on the findings of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, appointed by Congress and President Carter in 1979; its 11-volume final report, issued last year, was widely hailed for its evenhandedness. The Select Commission's executive director is Brandeis University American Studies professor Lawrence Fuchs, 55. "There is an even chance the bill will pass the House, "says Fuchs, "though it will be down to the wire in the lame duck session." Fuchs, the grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, was born in New York City, received degrees from NYU and Harvard, and started teaching at Brandeis in 1952; he was John Kennedy's Peace Corps director in the Philippines, and has published six books, most of them about ethnic politics in the U.S. At his Brandeis office, Fuchs discussed the immigration dilemma and the American response to it with John Stickney of PEOPLE.

How would you describe the current immigration situation?

We need more equity and control. Our borders are porous, and the patrols ineffective. The law currently in force is one of the longest and possibly the worst written in the statute books. Reform is needed to keep the front door open to legal immigrants and to try to shut the back door to the illegals.

Under Simpson-Mazzoli, how many legal immigrants may enter the U.S?

The numbers are subject to change when the bill is debated in the House, but the Senate version included a cap of 425,000 people a year, with 350,000 of that number reserved for relatives of U.S. residents. Refugees are considered under separate legislation, with guidelines intended to keep the annual flow at 50,000, although the President and Congress can allow more in for emergency humanitarian or foreign policy reasons. Put these figures in historical context: From 1900 to 1910 the U.S. took in an annual average of 880,000 immigrants.

Do today's legal immigrants strengthen the U.S.?

Yes. As a group they're self-selected for drive, then exhaustively screened by the U.S. government. They tend to have strong families, to be productive, to save, to invest, to be loyal and patriotic and within 12 to 14 years to surpass the median income of native-born Americans of comparable age. Refugees, who often come in suddenly in large numbers, and in a dependent condition, can cause a severe local crunch. In 1980 the U.S. had to admit 125,000 Cubans, as "special entrants," not as refugees. In such cases, and with refugees, the federal government should help and does—though local communities always want more.

Don't immigrants take jobs from native Americans?

Immigrants tend to make more jobs than they take. The average person thinks in terms of a fixed pie: "Somebody's doing better, I gotta be doing worse." But it's not a take-away game. One of the fascinating things about immigrants, legal or otherwise, is they see opportunities native-born Americans don't. Despite high unemployment in this country and race prejudice, I have met a number of West Africans working as many as three jobs apiece.

How many illegal immigrants are in the U.S., and where do they come from?

The most reliable estimate is no fewer than 3.5 million and no more than 6 million. There are guesses that between 100,000 and 500,000 come in every year to stay. Probably no more than half are Mexican nationals, with others from the Caribbean, Central and South America and from all over the world.

How do illegal immigrants affect the U.S. economy?

Nobody knows the extent to which they help or hurt it—but they do both. The suit you wear or the vegetables you eat are cheaper because of their presence. They're a lot like the so-called "seed immigrants" at the turn of the century—the Italians and Greeks, mainly individual men leaving their families behind and looking to stay temporarily. The illegals today are productive, and many pay payroll, Social Security and sales taxes. It's difficult for the tax system to connect individuals with their status as aliens. But they don't use U.S. services much because they can't risk showing up.

Who suffers most from the influx of illegal immigrants?

Because a large portion of the illegals are relatively unskilled, they're competing with the least-trained, poorest Americans in the labor market. If, say, 25,000 young blacks would otherwise be working, that's a serious national concern. But there is not enough evidence of displacement by aliens, legal or otherwise, to make them scapegoats for joblessness. In my opinion, the biggest problem with illegals isn't economic, but rather social, moral and jurisprudential.

Would you elaborate?

When you have a large underclass whose presence is a result of unlawful activity, it breeds illegality. The illegal immigrants aren't criminals, but they get preyed upon—by smugglers who bring them in, by employers who exploit them, and by criminals who extort from them. Many illegals are afraid to report such crimes.

Are there other dangers that are presented by this underclass?

Yes. The people in it are identified by their foreignness, which just begs xenophobia. Also, we could become dependent on this growing exploitable class of people who live in the shadows and do the society's scut work, which Americans might be acculturated into thinking no real American does, from garment district sweatshops to field stoop labor. Another danger is ethnic hostility, as blacks, for example, perceive Hispanics invading their turf. Ethnic conflict is what people kill about all over the world.

One demographer contends that by the year 2080 two out of five people in the U.S. labor force will be post-1980 immigrants or their descendants. Is this so?

It depends upon the assumptions you make about birth, death and migration. In any case, so what? Why should anyone expect the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of today's newcomers to be any less American than the descendants of previous generations of immigrants? Although some people think there is a flood of immigration now, actually the current percentage of foreign-born in the population is 6.2 percent, compared to 14.7 percent in 1910. Of course, these days there are more Asian and Hispanic immigrants. But they don't just remain, for example, Chinese or Mexicans. They become Chinese-Americans or Mexican-Americans.

Can't U.S. borders be better patrolled?

Yes. No more than 400 people at any one time are on patrol along the Mexican border, 2,000 miles long. You fly on patrol in a helicopter, and you suddenly see 25 people hiding, mostly men with a few women and kids, and you put the searchlight on them and they cower and you feel lousy and the border patrol guy shouts through a megaphone in Spanish, "Go back! We got you!" So maybe the next night they come back and try again. There are better ways to discourage people. For example, to help "demagnetize" the jobs that draw people here, Simpson-Mazzoli calls for civil and criminal sanctions for employers who hire illegals. That means there must be some system of worker ID, which I like no better than employer sanctions. It's a system that we don't want but it is one that we need, to get our house in order.

Criticism has been lodged against Simpson-Mazzoli's amnesty for illegal immigrants who have resided continuously in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 1980. How do you respond?

The amnesty isn't a reward for illegality. It's necessary to help wipe out the immigrant underclass, and to concentrate our patrol forces on future illegals and not on people who are already here. Besides, when the illegals register after amnesty, that should finally give us some hard data about who these folks are, where they come from and what their real impact is.

Is E Pluribus Unum still meaningful?

Absolutely. I visited these third graders in Denver—some Hispanic kids, some Indochinese, with half the class Anglo, as they say. After class I pointed to a picture of George Washington and asked this towheaded Anglo kid, "Who's that?" After he told me, I asked, "What'd he do?" The kid said, "He died." Ask a foolish question, right? So I tried the routine on a Vietnamese kid with a Cub Scout shirt. "Who's that?" "George Washington." "What'd he do?" "Oh, he's the father of our country." Now, it's not that the Vietnamese kid was smarter, it's just that people come here and feel it's their country right away.

Can the U.S. resolve its immigration crisis?

There will continue to be great migration pressures, but I have confidence that we can manage them. I'm much less nervous about the future, though I don't take a hands-off policy. We have the most pluralistic society of any country in the world and the greatest civic unity of any multi-ethnic one. We've got a unique thing going here, and we're doing pretty well at it.

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